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Movie Review

Stu Shepard is a fast-talking, New York City public relations shill constantly wheeling and dealing on behalf of his favorite client—himself. He’s a smooth operator who lies, cheats and manipulates anyone in a position to get him what he wants (everyone else is an annoyance). But when he curiously picks up the receiver at Times Square’s last remaining phone booth, Stu realizes he has finally found a situation he can’t talk his way out of. A psychopath who knows him well has singled him out to pay for his sins. The Caller, talking to Stu from a nearby building, has him pinned down with a high-powered rifle and refuses to let him hang up. If he does, he dies. The Caller proceeds to play sadistic head games with Stu, forcing him to embarrass himself and confess his transgressions to the people close to him, as well as to the gathering throng of police, reporters and curious passersby who aren’t allowed to know what’s actually happening. Or bye-bye Stu. Among other things, Stu must tell his wife, Kelly, about Pam, a young woman he is seeing on the side. He must also admit to his new girlfriend that he’s married. When Stu is suspected of killing a man on the street, a police unit surrounds him while its commander, Capt. Ramey, must try to talk him out of the booth. The mental torture wears on Stu in real time until a climactic decision ends the standoff. [Warning: Spoilers throughout]

positive elements: Stu’s selfish, insensitive schmoozing is vilified. We only grow to care about him because of the extreme nature of his situation. The film makes no apologies for his ignoble character and poor choices, which include lying, manipulating people and toying with marital infidelity. As for husbands with a wandering eye, Phone Booth (much like 1987’s Fatal Attraction) could scare them away from potential affairs. In some ways, the caller is the faceless voice of "Conscience & Consequence" that threatens to exact justice on us all. He says things like, "You’re in this position because you’re not telling the truth" and "Your choices put other people in jeopardy." Very true. And while the audience may never be threatened in this way, Stu’s predicament serves as a metaphor for people trapped by bad decisions who discover too late the law of sowing and reaping. The film also attests to the fact that even thinking about cheating on a spouse is a crime against the marriage. The packaging of these powerful messages is rife with problems, but the points come through loud and clear.

Elsewhere, on two occasions characters speak out against "uncalled for" profanity. Ramey alludes to the need for trust in a marriage, and treats Stu with kindness and respect amid the chaos. Stu loves his wife, and is pained to have to repeat hurtful things The Caller tells him to say to her. Forced to decide whether The Caller should shoot his wife or his girlfriend, Stu refuses to make the choice, and ultimately gives himself up instead ("It’s me you want!" he yells as he hold his arms out, waiting for judgment). While baring his soul, Stu repents of being the kind of guy "who doesn’t waste time being nice to people who aren’t of any importance to him."

spiritual content: Because The Caller repeatedly mentions "paying for sins," Stu asks, "This is all some religious thing?" His tormenter assures him that he’s not a "Bible-crazed killer."

sexual content: Mostly conversations about sex, though prostitutes wear gaudy, revealing outfits. The phone booth is located outside a sleazy sex club. One hooker alludes to her ability to manually stimulate her clients. Although Stu has never slept with Pam, he removes his wedding ring when he calls her each day. She is a fantasy fling that—had he not picked up that dreaded pay phone—easily might have become a more physical dalliance. The Caller forces Stu to admit to Kelly that he imagines sleeping with another woman. Against his will, Stu must also make crass comments to Ramey about impotence and masturbation. The Caller mentions having killed a porn king/pedophile.

violent content: An enraged pimp attacks the phone booth with a baseball bat, smashing the glass. He is dispatched by The Caller with a bullet in the back. A bullet fired through the glass bloodies Stu’s ear. Police pull guns. Throughout the movie, The Caller trains his sight on many potential targets, creating non-stop tension rather than a high body count. Stu gets shot in the chest, but not fatally. Cops bust into a room and find a dead body in a pool of blood, reportedly a suicide victim who cut his own throat. The Caller brags about having assassinated people who were dishonorable (a crooked businessman, a pedophile, etc.), and describes brutal events from Vietnam.

crude or profane language: This is one obscene phone call. Throughout the film’s meager 80 minutes, there are more than 120 f-words, 13 s-words, 16 abuses of Jesus’ and God’s names, and two-dozen milder profanities or uses of anatomical slang. There’s also an obscene gesture.

drug and alcohol content: People smoke cigarettes. A drug is injected into Stu’s arm to sedate him. Stu invites Pam out for martinis.

other negative elements: When Stu tries to placate The Caller by offering to make him a celebrity on the level of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, it’s creepy to think that there might be a budding serial killer in the audience eager to parlay murder into personal status in precisely the way he describes.

conclusion: Phone Booth is shot with an elegantly gritty combination of chaos and claustrophobia that creates unrelenting tension. In addition to being gripping and artfully done, the film makes moral statements that reflect Scriptural truth: Your sin will find you out (Num. 32:23). What a man sows he shall reap (Gal. 6:7). Marital fidelity means being faithful in thought as well as deed (Matt. 5:27-28). Farrell is excellent as the oily publicist who spins webs of deceit in business, refusing to take "no" for an answer, only to find himself completely out of control, humiliated and broken. But there’s way too much static on the line. Violence, non-stop obscenities and other crass dialogue make seeing Phone Booth a bad call.


Positive Elements

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Sexual Content

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Colin Farrell as Stu Shepard; Kiefer Sutherland as The Caller; Forest Whitaker as Captain Ramey; Katie Holmes as Pamela McFadden; Radha Mitchell as Kelly Shepard


20th Century Fox



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On Video

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Bob Smithouser

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